John Wall was addressing reporters in front of his locker room stall Saturday night at Verizon Center when Martell Webster walked out of the training room wearing only a towel and began flexing for the cameras. As Wall tried to explain why the Washington Wizards won for the sixth time in eight games, Webster giggled and preened in an attempt to steal the spotlight.
“I already know that’s Martell,” Wall said, refusing to look back as he shook his head.
The Wizards’ locker room is again a fun place to be, with the team going 8-8 in November, its most wins in that month since 1984. The franchise has been .500 or better in November only five other times in the past 30 seasons — in 1984, 1986, 1993, 2004 and 2005 — and four of those teams reached the playoffs.
Just two weeks ago, the Wizards’ season appeared to be in shambles, with the team possessing the Eastern Conference’s worst record at 2-7. It had lost small forward Trevor Ariza to a strained right hamstring, Nene demanded that the young guys “get their heads out their butts” and speculation about Coach Randy Wittman’s job security intensified.
“I think everybody [else] panicked,” Wall said after Saturday’s 108-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks. “We didn’t panic because we know we have a good team and we know we have a team that’s capable of being in the playoffs. We know we got off to a rough start . . . but we figured out a way to win.”
The Wizards opened the season with 10 of their first 16 games on the road, including tough matchups against two-time defending champion Miami and the past three Western Conference representatives in the NBA Finals — San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Dallas. Washington just endured eight games in 12 days and won three out of the past four after losing leading scorer Bradley Beal to a stress injury in his right fibula that will keep him out for at least another week.
“It was a tough start to the month, to the season. I don’t think any of us wanted the start we had, but it happened,” Wittman said. “And there’s going to be stretches again during this year where we have to get ourselves out of this and get on a run. To do what we did in this month with the schedule we had and the road games, I think it’s good. I think you have to be ready to take advantage of the situation when it turns your way.”
In their first nine games, the Wizards shot 42.8 percent from the field and averaged 100 points per game, but they allowed opponents to shoot 48.3 percent and score 104.6 points per game. In the past eight games, they are shooting 47 percent from the floor while scoring 98.1 points. But they are holding opponents to 96.6 points and 45.2 percent shooting.
“When we play defense as a team and we’re healthy, we can compete with anybody,” said Wall, who has elevated his play in the past two weeks, averaging 22.6 points on 47.1 percent shooting, with 8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals. Last week he was named Eastern Conference player of the week for the second time in his career.
If the Wizards can defeat the Orlando Magic on Monday at Verizon Center, they will be at .500 for the first time since they drafted Wall first overall in 2010. Washington would then have three days to prepare for the Milwaukee Bucks, the current occupants of the East basement. Washington hasn’t had a winning record since it was 2-1 to begin the 2009-10 season.
“Never in our minds did we doubt that we were not this team that we’ve built all these expectations up to be,” Webster said. “We’re headed in the right direction. We’re not at .500 yet. We have the opportunity to be there Monday. The goal is to get, of course, way above .500. It’s just consistency. Realizing the fact that when we play the game the right way, we tend to get great results.”
The Wizards (8-9) have bounced back from the bottom and now have the fourth-best record in the weaker-than-usual East. For the first time since 1972, just two teams in the conference have winning records at the start of December.
Several teams expected to contend have foundered, such as New York and Brooklyn, or experienced hardships, such as Chicago, which lost former most valuable player Derrick Rose for another season because of a right knee injury.
“It’s definitely too early,” Wall said when asked about looking at the standings. “I just look at it like, the Knicks are struggling. They’ve got guys hurt. You got Brooklyn with guys hurt, and anybody can turn it around. You’ve got to be patient, but our main thing is just keep trying to win basketball games.”
But the Wizards haven’t had the smoothest path, either. In addition to losing Beal, third overall pick Otto Porter Jr. has yet to play a game because of strained right hip flexor and recently had his first practice, and Al Harrington has missed the past 10 games with a right knee injury. Nene is battling a sore right Achilles’ tendon that has forced him to miss three games.
“We are showing that, I feel, we are ready to take the next step and become a playoff team, an elite team,” Ariza said. “I think everybody is growing up. Everybody is maturing. We’re not satisfied with what we’re doing. We know we’ve got to work hard to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”